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(en) Villagers in Cross Hairs When Paramilitary Groups Attack Rebels

From Tom Burghardt <tburghardt@igc.apc.org>
Date Thu, 18 Jun 1998 10:30:21 -0700 (PDT)
Cc aff@burn.ucsd.edu, amanecer@aa.net, ats@locust.etext.org, bblum6@aol.com, latinred@hotmail.com, mlopez@igc.org, mnovickttt@igc.org, nattyreb@ix.netcom.com, pinknoiz@ccnet.com, sflr@slip.net

      A - I N F O S  N E W S  S E R V I C E

     Colombia: 'Self-defense forces' act ruthlessly in driving
     back guerrillas. Federal government has not responded to
     local pleas for help.
     Wednesday, June 17, 1998
     By JUANITA DARLING, Times Staff Writer
     MEDELLIN DEL ARIARI, Colombia--Occupied by guerrillas and
surrounded by the army, this village in the foothills of the
Andes waits in terror.
     Members of the illegal, anti-insurgent "self-defense forces"
that now operate in much of Colombia marched in briefly four
months ago. The mercenaries--part of a movement whose operations
were paid for originally by merchants and ranchers looking for
protection against rebel extortion--announced that they intended
to take control of this well-known rebel stronghold.
     Then, last month, two traveling merchants were decapitated
as they drove the 22 miles from the main highway into Medellin
del Ariari.
     And three weeks ago, the army began operations in the
region, drawing a tighter and tighter circle around the
insurgents until about 50 of them were trapped inside the
     Human rights activists agree with villagers that they are
seeing a pattern already established in Puerto Alvira, Mapiripan
and other points along the routes of conflict in Colombia's civil
     Medellin del Ariari, they fear, is living the chronicle of a
massacre foretold.
     "We know quite well that when the army moves in, the
paramilitary groups [self-defense forces] follow," Luis Alberto
Funes, a 43-year-old day laborer who has lived here for 15 years,
said this month. "We know that is what happened in Mapiripan.
That was a totally militarized zone. They did what they did and
     Almost a year ago, dozens of armed, uniformed men inflicted
four days of terror on Mapiripan, another village in this central
province of Meta. When they withdrew, 35 suspected guerrilla
sympathizers had been decapitated and their bodies thrown in the
nearby Guaviare River.
     Despite reports that the massacre was occurring, no army
troops or police were sent into the area. A local judge called
federal authorities for help half a dozen times, on at least one
occasion with screaming in the background, but soldiers did not
arrive until the killers had left.
     Nor did rebels defend the village. Instead, they attacked
suspected paramilitary sympathizers a week later.
     Nearby Puerto Alvira suffered a similar massacre in May.
Shortly afterward, a paramilitary unit invaded the oil town of
Barrancabermeja, killing 11 residents and kidnapping 25 more,
whose bodies were burned early this month, their captors
     Such brutal tactics have allowed illegal self-defense forces
to succeed where the army has failed: They are driving back the
guerrillas by scaring away civilians thought to support them.
They have become a major factor in Colombia's prolonged civil
     Terror is their most effective tactic. "The government took
no significant action to restrain these powerful paramilitary
groups," a recent U.S. State Department report found.
     "There is a definite pattern," said Robin Kirk, who covers
Colombia for Human Rights Watch. "It starts with rumors. . . .
Then, there is evidence of paramilitary activity: Bodies start
     Finally, one day, local paramilitaries appear in a village
reinforced by "shock troops," the highly mobile, pitiless elite
of the self-defense forces.
     They pull out a list, sometimes from a laptop computer, and
begin reading names. A heavily masked person with the group
points out the people listed, witnesses have said.
     Then the killing begins.
     "Even though the local authorities may call police, the
government does not react until the paramilitaries are gone,"
Kirk said. "They just come to collect the bodies."
     Colombian law enforcement officials reply that they simply
cannot protect remote villages.
     "We make a great effort, but there are 35,000 villages and
hamlets," said National Police Chief Rosso Jose Serrano.
"Unfortunately, because of the guerrillas, we cannot assign small
groups as one would in a normal situation. . . . Where there
would normally be five police officers, we have to assign 30, and
that complicates matters."
     Instead, he said, the police rely on army support. But the
army claims to have its own manpower problems.
     "It is possible that military intelligence knows these towns
are threatened," said Manuel Jose Bonett, commander of Colombia's
armed forces. "The worst part is knowing these things and not
having enough troops to go protect people. . . . We have to give
priority to the population centers."
     Colombian sociologist Maria Victoria Uribe said those
answers show that "the government has no ability to protect its
citizens. It is just another feudal power"--along with the
guerrillas, the paramilitaries, drug traffickers and organized
     Kirk strongly disagreed. "That is deeply cynical," she said.
"To believe that, you would have to believe that the
paramilitaries are ghosts." Heavily armed, uniformed men driving
through army roadblocks would normally be noticed, she said,
adding: "They [the armed forces] turn a blind eye."
     Human rights activists have long accused the armed forces of
allowing the self-defense forces to do the dirty work of
anti-guerrilla war.
     That is not the case, argued Col. Miguel Perez, the
commander of the military base where the troops surrounding
Medellin del Ariari are stationed.
     The army is trying to protect civilians, Perez said. Troops
have not entered Medellin del Ariari because the guerrillas are
trapped inside and the army does not want villagers caught in the
cross-fire of an attack, he said.
     "The people there are very fond of the subversives," Perez
said. "They have lived with them for many years."
     That is exactly what makes Medellin del Ariari a massacre
target, say human rights activists.
     The village was founded in the late 1950s by men like
81-year-old Calixto Saavedra. They came here fleeing La
Violencia, "the Violence," more than a decade of fighting that
ended in 1965.
     "I jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire," Saavedra
said, his tired brown eyes outlined by dark circles. "I have
gotten used to violence, to seeing corpses. Now, the violence has
become war, and that makes us nervous."
     Meta, then a frontier, was carved up among the different
factions that fought in La Violencia.
     Medellin del Ariari is part of El Castillo, a municipality
dominated by the most radical leftist faction of the Liberal
Party. In the late 1980s, the area's loyalty switched to the
newly formed Patriotic Union party. The Patriotic Union is widely
believed to be the political arm of the Revolutionary Armed
Forces of Colombia, this nation's oldest and largest guerrilla
group, known by the initials FARC.
     By contrast, El Dorado, a town about 45 minutes down the
unpaved highway, was settled by Conservative Party supporters.
Now it is known as the center of regional paramilitary activity.
     Although all of the settlers were fleeing violence, they
never really stopped fighting. The killing intensified in 1986,
when the self-defense forces made their first appearance in
Medellin del Ariari.
     That same year, three injured men approached widow Beatriz
Oveido's ranch outside the village. Because she was a trained
nurse in an area with no doctors, neighbors often asked her for
help dressing wounds. So she used her skills to aid the men.
     "Later, I had to go into the market at El Dorado," she
recalled. "When I got there, the first thing I saw was that two
of the men I treated were lying in the street, dead. Yes, they
were guerrillas." Shocked, she told the story to a man standing
next to her. "That was my error," she recalled, crying. "I should
not have said anything."
     After that, the persecution of her family was relentless,
she said. Her sons, then 10 and 13, disappeared on their way to
El Dorado. Their bodies were never found. Her 10-year-old
daughter was kidnapped and raped; she is now institutionalized.
Then, a third son, an older teenager, was killed.
     By 1993, Oveido knew she was in danger when a group of
uniformed men knocked on her door late one night. She and her
daughter escaped by crawling through an underground tunnel that
the older son had dug shortly before his death.
     They spent the night hiding in a tree and the next day began
the journey to Ciudad Bolivar, one of the rings of misery
surrounding the Colombian capital, Bogota.
     "Now I do not even have money for sugar," she lamented.
"When my [surviving] children hear me say that, they tell me:
'How can you even think of that after all you have been through?
Just pretend you have always been poor. It's better to sleep
soundly, even if you have nothing to eat.' "
     While Oveido was being pursued, Patriotic Union members were
also targeted. In 1992, gunmen trying to assassinate the mayor of
El Castillo killed 17 other people attending a rally she skipped
at the last minute because of car trouble. Still, they killed her
a week later, along with her driver, the mayor-elect and the city
     "They targeted everyone in the area identified with the
guerrillas or the Patriotic Union," Kirk said. "Now it's gone way
beyond spot assassinations into massacres."
     "Their message is: 'We, the paramilitaries, have arrived. If
you are sympathetic to the guerrilla or have done things for them
in the past, even involuntarily, leave or we will find you,' "
she said. "A massacre sweeps out the population that has
supported the guerrilla."
     That message has already been heard clearly in Medellin del
Ariari. Only about 10% of the families remain, villagers said.
     Gesturing across the empty park toward shuttered concrete
block houses, Saavedra said: "All the houses are closed up. No
one lives there. They have all gone. Every day, we feel
threatened by the self-defense forces."
     So far this year, 97 Colombians, mainly peasants living in
remote areas, have died in massacres. Army officials say they
cannot protect villagers from either the two main guerrilla
groups, known by the initials FARC and ELN, or the illegal
self-defense forces, whose initials are AUC.
                                            No. of  Suspected
Village and province                 Date  victims    killers
La Ceja, Antioquia                Feb. 24        7    unclear
San Vicente del Caguan, Caqueta   Feb. 25        4       FARC
San Carlos, Antioquia            March 24        5        AUC
Paratebueno, Cundinamarca        March 25        4        AUC
Urrao, Antioquia                 April 28       10        AUC
Puerto Alvira, Meta                 May 4       20        AUC
Liborna, Antioquia                 May 11        7    unclear
Betania, Antioquia                 May 11        4    unclear
Barrancabermeja, Santander         May 16       11        AUC
Barrancabermeja, Santander         June 4      25*        AUC
     * These people were kidnapped May 16 and killed later. 
     Source: Human Rights Watch/Americas
     Copyright Los Angeles Times
                              * * *
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